Someone in New Jersey won $390 million in the Mega Millions lottery this month and has yet to claim their winnings. Every day they have waited has cost them a lot of money - at least $140,625 a week in lost interest on the payoff. That's probably not a major concern, given the size of the prize. But a larger tragedy may be possible. The winner may have lost or forgotten their winning ticket. It's not an uncommon occurrence. State lotteries across the nation are holding or diverting millions of dollars worth of prizes won by unlucky players who fail to claim their winnings.
"The thought of that happening is too horrifying to contemplate," said Nicholas Barber while plunking down $5 at the Columbia Groceries & Deli for as many chances at the Mega Millions lottery drawing. "I play every week, and I keep the tickets in a safe place so they don't get sent through the wash or something."
But such nightmares can and do come true, lottery officials of several states agree.
"It happens all the time to a greater or lesser degree," said Carole Everett, director of communications for the Maryland Lottery.
Most unclaimed winning tickets, lottery officials say, are for relatively small amounts - $1, $2, $5, $10.
But those modest figures add up quickly, given the number of people who play regularly.
In Indiana, for example, only 1.5 percent of the total jackpots went unclaimed in 2005, but that still represented $10.7 million that people should have collected but did not, says Edward Benton, chief financial officer of the Hoosier Lottery.
And there's been more than $141 million in unclaimed earnings in Virginia since its lottery program was established in December 1987, the Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk reported late last year.
"Truth is, it's rare" for winnings to go unredeemed, says Buddy W. Roogow, director of the Maryland Lottery.
"It's very rare to have a giant prize [unclaimed] ... but it does happen." says Andi Brancato, director of public relations for the Michigan Lottery.
A Maryland resident three years ago bought a $10 scratch-off ticket and won the top prize of $1 million, but never claimed the money.
Two people in Minnesota beat 1 in 480,000 odds by picking the correct numbers to qualify for $5,000 a year for life, but neither has yet redeemed the ticket.
Michigan officials report that someone a year ago chose the right numbers - 27-28-30-42-50 - to win $250,000, but never surfaced with the ticket.
And a $5 million winning ticket from Michigan in 1996 was never cashed in, the largest unclaimed prize in the state's history.
"The person never stepped up, as strange as that sounds," Brancato says.
While most people would blanch at losing $5 million, that's peanuts compared to what is believed to be the largest prize to go unclaimed.
Two people - one from Pennsylvania, the other from Indiana - chose the winning numbers in 2002 for a Powerball game, enabling them to share a $103 million jackpot.
But the poor soul in Indiana never redeemed the ticket - forfeiting more than $51 million, Benton says.
Unclaimed winnings in Maryland reached $8.9 million in the last fiscal year, ending in June, and this year they total $1.3 million - and counting, Everett says.
The uncollected money is recycled into lottery programs in most states, including Maryland, although some, like Virginia, use the unclaimed funds for school construction.
"By law, unclaimed winnings must go back to the players," Roogow says. "That basically takes two forms. The first is to increase the payouts, but the primary way is through bonus games."
The reasons why winners become losers are part mystery and part supposition.
"We don't know, that's the whole point," says Benton in Indiana.
Some players, he says, "probably buy a ticket, stick it in a drawer and they forget."
Incredibly, Brancato says, "many times people just don't check the numbers."
Roogow says there are players who simply ignore small winnings. "If they don't win the big prize, they don't bother," he says.
There also are the unlucky ones. A person in Texas not long ago lost out on $100,000 when his winning ticket blew out the window and was never found, Benton says.
Some players are inattentive and simply do not claim their winnings on time, lottery officials say.
And the rules, like time, are unforgiving.
The time period in which winnings can be claimed varies widely. Some states, like New York and Connecticut, provide a year's grace, while many others give players six months.
People have 182 days to claim their winnings in Maryland, unless otherwise noted on the tickets or game rules.
After that, Everett says, "they are out of luck."
A New York couple stopped and purchased a Mega Millions ticket while driving through Maryland a few years ago, Roogow says. The couple won a second-tier prize of $175,000 but never collected because they turned the ticket in too late.
Clarence Jackson Jr. suffered an even greater indignity in 1996, when he turned in his winning ticket from the Connecticut Lottery Corp. three days late - and lost $5.8 million.
Lottery officials try to locate the winners, though there is little they can actually do.
Most maintain a list of unclaimed winning numbers and the expiration dates on their Web sites. And some, like Maryland, hope publicity will bring the missing winners forward.
"We'll issue a news release a few days before the prize is to expire," Brancato says.
One might assume that lottery officials secretly like winnings to go unclaimed. But they don't, because it's not good business.
"We're happy to keep that down," Everett says. "Happy stories means more people will play."
Roogow adds: "I want people to get their rewards, that's why they are playing. ... The bottom line is, there is churn. They reinvest their winnings to some extent, and that's how any business continues to thrive."
Janice Redding handed over $1 for a Pick Three ticket at a Giant supermarket in Jessup earlier this month, swearing she'd never forget her winnings.
"What are those folks thinking?" she says of the almost-winners. "If I ever win, I'll collect my money. I don't care if it's only for $1 - that'll pay for another ticket."
But not everyone has the same resolve. And in the end, it's up to the players to become real winners.
Michigan Lottery officials say they are waiting to hear from the holders of five unclaimed tickets, each worth $250,892.
And the Maryland Lottery is still waiting to see if the winner of $250,000 will ever show up.
"It's hard to fathom that people hold large tickets and do nothing about them," Everett says.